The pet detectives

Special task force attempts to put animal abusers behind bars—before they move onto people

Illustration by Maria Ratinova

More than three months since six pit bull puppies were found dead in a South Sacramento trash bin, the grisly case remains unsolved.

The early August discovery was one of about 150 calls that the city receives on a given day; reports range from a neighbor's dog that got loose to blatant abuse. Jace Huggins, the city's chief animal control officer, said the volume and complexity of the calls means his team is always playing catch-up.

The Sacramento County District Attorney's Office is teaming up with animal control and law enforcement to take a bigger bite out of animal cruelty cases. In January 2018, it launched the Animal Cruelty Prosecution Unit and Sacramento Animal Cruelty Task Force.

The connection between animal abuse and violence against humans is behind this new approach. One study showed that 50% of school shooters had a history of animal cruelty. According to another study, 70% of people charged with animal cruelty were known by police for other kinds of violent behavior.

But getting justice for pets before their abusers move onto people is no easy task, even for the animal-loving prosecutor leading the mission.

More than a dozen animal portraits hang on Deputy District Attorney Hilary Bagley-Franzoia's wall. The photos and paintings mostly portray healthy, happy dogs. But the physical and digital files stored in her office tell an uglier story.

In one video, a couple is having an argument outside their home. As the woman tries to drive away with a child, the man picks up her Toto-looking dog and bounces it against the windshield. The woman frantically gets out and grabs it before driving away. The scene was captured by a neighbor's home security camera. The dog was seized, but the couple's abusive relationship continued, Bagley-Franzoia said.

The veteran prosecutor heads up both the animal cruelty task force and the prosecution unit, meaning each case is overseen by her and handled by the same investigators from start to finish.

“One of the main reasons is you want consistency,” she said.

The task force is made up of investigators from Folsom, Elk Grove and other outlying areas, along with the Sacramento Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other nonprofits. This allows for better communication among police agencies, whose task force members train together and share notes on cases that cross jurisdictions.

When she advocated for a unit to aggressively pursue animal abuse, Bagley-Franzoia said she highlighted to DA Anne Marie Schubert the correlation between animal abuse and violent crimes against people.

The National Link Coalition, a New Jersey-based organization, educates people about that connection using research from various sources. It links domestic violence and animal abuse, describing the latter as the “tip of the iceberg.”

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 71% of pet owners who enter domestic violence shelters say their abuser had “threatened, injured or killed family pets.”

Huggins said domestic abuse victims often don't leave their batterers because they're afraid that person will hurt their pets.

But many of the cases Huggins sees aren't clear cut. He said the laws on animal abuse are antiquated—written at a time when animals were seen more as property than family members. Sometimes the issue is neglect, like leaving a dog out in the rain, and the owner needs to be educated.

“If there was a law that said you have to love your animal, I'd be glad to enforce it,” Huggins said. “But there isn't.”

There is, however, a bill on President Donald Trump's desk to make animal abuse a federal crime. Congress unanimously passed the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act in late October. Trump is expected to sign it into law.

“Slowly but surely, we're moving more toward where we view these crimes for the heinousness that they really are,” said Huggins.

Since Sacramento County's prosecution unit and task force were formed, they've won 27 felony convictions.

One of those convictions came in early 2019, when Brandon Carter Goodnight pleaded no contest to felony animal neglect, according to online Sacramento Superior Court records. When police searched his home in October 2018, they found a dog that died of starvation in his room that was microchipped under Goodnight's name, the DA's office stated in a press release. Authorities also found an emaciated dog in the backyard, which was seized and has since recovered.

Goodnight was sentenced to three years in prison, the maximum penalty under the law. If the federal bill is signed into law, the max sentence would increase to seven years in prison.